No matter the results of this election, one thing is clear: half of America has announced through its vote that it does not implicitly trust the public health experts. As both Donald Trump and Joe Biden made clear time and again, part of this election was a referendum on the pandemic and its management. Mr. Biden promised to listen to “the scientists,” while President Trump advocated the end to lockdowns, mandatory masks, and counselled America not to allow fear of the virus to end life as we have known it.
Now, as the future of our country and the result of the election hangs in the balance, mainstream media is already beginning to voice its horror at this inescapable truth of the election. Experts are bemoaning the rampant lack of “health intelligence,” “disbelief in science,” and “poor education” that has led our country to a point where half have voiced their rejection of public health measures. Clearly, they opine, much more must be done to educate and inform.
But this election was not a referendum between science and suspicion. Science and public health are not the same thing. Science, as any self-respecting scientist will confirm, consists of scientific hypotheses which are then tested and retested in order to establish theories. Note the difference between theories and facts: even gravity is, for the true scientist, a theory. It is a fact that things heavier than air tend to drop to the ground. That fact, and a series of related facts, constitute the theory of gravity. If other as-yet undiscovered facts come to light and disrupt that theory, the scientist would pursue the conflicting data to its logical end. Thus, the scientifically sound Ptolemaic model of the universe, confronted with facts which no longer support the theory, gave way to the Copernican model. The Copernican model could very well become outdated in a thousand years when some information that scientists do not yet have access to suggests a different explanation.
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Public health, on the other hand, is the process of establishing policies and recommendations that should have their origin in established scientific theories. Policies are not science. Though they should be informed by science, they must also be informed by other things: morality, practicality, cultural and social impact, economic impact, and so forth. For example, it would obviously be much safer, scientifically speaking, for every occupant of a vehicle to ride backwards in five-point-restraints car seats, such as my newborn uses. However, the practicality of such a public health policy renders it untenable. Similarly, it would also be scientifically useful for medical researchers to vivisect living human beings in order to advance medical knowledge for the common good. But that would, of course, be inhumane. Public health should not and cannot simply follow the science alone, absent any practical or moral rubrics.
The problem that our country now faces, as highlighted by this election, is that half the country does not trust public health officials’ decisions about what rubrics to use when deciding policies. Part of this is due to conflicting values. Anthony Fauci believes that nothing is lost by permanently eliminating Western Civilization’s millennia-old ritual of shaking hands. Other public health experts believe that eliminating most contact between nursing home residents and their loved ones—possibly for the rest of the residents’ lives—is preferable to the risk of catching the virus. But those are not scientific assessments, and not everyone agrees with the philosophy that underpins such policies.
The other reason for the mistrust of public health officials does in fact have to do with the scientific angle of the decision. While public health should rely on the scientific data, the public health experts have for generations crafted policies that rely heavily upon unscientific propaganda, heedless of actual scientific findings.
Take another example. It’ a public health policy in both the United States and Canada for a woman’s OBGYN to discuss contraceptive options as a necessary preliminary to checking out of the hospital after delivery. Leaving the moral implications of artificial contraception aside for the moment, this seems like a reasonable policy. After all, many women don’t want to find themselves expecting again so soon after delivery and might want to come up with some sort of plan to avoid this. And yet, as every adult should know, new mothers are not fertile twenty-four hours after delivery. That might be true of rabbits, but it is scientifically laughable to assert the same for humans. This public health agenda does not present the public with science, nor does it seek to educate and inform. Rather, it uses unscientific scare tactics to garner public acceptance.
Without wading too deeply into the controversy over vaccination, the same holds true of the flu vaccine. For decades, every flu season is marked by terrifying headlines highlighting the death of an apparently completely healthy child from the flu. While this does happen, and the flu vaccine may or may not have been able to prevent it, there are no headlines agonizing over the death of a child who, also apparently healthy, died of the flu despite the vaccine—a situation that happens as well. Most anti-vaxxers I have met are unpersuaded by the hysterical headlines because the statistical likelihood of tragedy is small enough not to outweigh the other rubrics (scientific, moral, cultural, etc.) they use in their decision not to submit themselves to the jab.
The most common response to the “anti-vaxx” movement is to brand its adherents as ignorant buffoons. Social media has launched a censorship war in its attempt to bolster the public health establishment. However, the scientist does not use censorship, because the scientist does not deal with policies and rigid conceptions of certainty. There is always room for debate with a scientist because a scientist is attempting to sort out facts to fit theories. The beginning of censorship is the end of science, seeing as it eliminates rigorous scientific inquiry. Censorship, unfortunately, is all too often the tactic for today’s public health expert.
What we are facing today is a replay of the infamous Scopes Monkey Trial. That trial, which captured the nation’s headlines in 1925, was part of a progressive agenda to shift the nation’s conception of science. It began when John Thomas Scopes, a public-school teacher in the conservative South, volunteered to get caught teaching the theory of evolution.
Most people think that the Scopes trial was also a referendum between science and suspicion. Scopes lost the trial but won the public; within a few years, the Bible was thrown out of the public schools and was replaced by Charles Darwins’s The Origin of Species. However, what the Scopes Monkey Trial actually accomplished was to banish real science and traditional religion from the public mind, enshrining scientism in its place. Newspapermen flocked southwards to gawk at the backwards hicks who did not “believe in science.” They marveled at the “cultural scientific ignorance” of these bumpkins. They breathlessly wrote home to self-congratulatory coastal urbanites to showcase how desperate the situation was: clearly, the ignorant Southerners needed to be educated and informed.
Then, as now, real science was sacrificed on the altar of scientism, and for a national narrative that drove particular policies. Those who objected were silenced in the name of “science.” Increasingly, many well-meaning Americans grew more and more unsatisfied with the pronouncements of the experts, as policies were equated with science and any honest scientific inquiry on the part of Americans was haughtily dismissed and the questioner written off as a denier and a dunce.
The stakes of the coercive scientism inaugurated by the Scopes Monkey Trial were high, and they have only grown the more as society has become more centralized and technology more pervasive. Scientism abolishes rational discussion, as one’s opponent becomes a “science denier,” rather than an alternative explanation of the relevant facts that can be logically engaged in pursuit of the truth.
As a result, scientism’s pronouncements become infallible in the mind of its adherent. Intolerance of dissenters is justified, since its chosen theories, policies, and philosophies must be preserved as “fact.” Any rubric that should inform public health, education, or policy can be scorned, if necessary, as “not following the science,” and any rubric that assists the agenda can be protected as part of the science. Big Tech and social media giants routinely censor or obstruct “misinformation,” which concept relies upon scientism’s myopic treatment of facts and details that do not conform to its unalterable narrative of reality.
Take, for instance, the strange science of this summer. Massive Trump rallies became reckless “superspreader events” which public health experts condemned and even claimed specific Covid death-rate numbers for. Meanwhile, the BLM protests, riots, and looting were not only declared virus-free, but in fact heralded as positive and necessary public health measures. “Systemic racism poses a greater threat to public health than Covid,” we were told over and over.
Similarly, scientism has been at play in the election itself. As we are increasingly discovering, public health has been used to fiddle with ballots, ballot collection, and even ballot counting. Those who are objecting are again being given the Scopes treatment. Look at the buffoons, the science deniers!
If public health experts want to address this very real crisis the nation is facing, they should pause before rolling out the next public health education program. They should do some soul-searching. Perhaps they should revisit the distinctions between science and policy, and remember the chief virtue of the scientist: the humility to admit mistakes, analyze what went wrong, and adjust accordingly.
[Photo credit: Getty Images News]